Nation's Largest Charter District OK'd in Fla.
As the number of charter schools continues to grow, some of the movement's true believers are casting a skeptical eye on efforts to award charter status to entire districts.
Last month, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Cabinet made Volusia County schools the first public charter school district in the state and the largest in the country. Like the operators of individual charter schools, the central administration of the 66-school system is now free from many of the state rules and regulations that bind regular districts.
"For years, we had been working with our legislative delegation in an effort to remove what we felt were burdensome regulations that were hindering us," said Tim J. Huth, the deputy superintendent of the 60,500-student district in central Florida. "What we really wanted was some flexibility in spending state categorical funds."
In the past, Mr. Huth said, the district's hands were tied when its art teachers needed supplies—even if it had money left over in its textbook budget.
"We wanted to buy instructional materials for the classroom, but clay for the art teachers didn't fit the state's definition of instructional materials," he said. "Well, that just doesn't make sense, so now we can move money where we need it."
But some proponents of charter schools argue that granting charters to local administrators doesn't necessarily constitute reform, especially if the main reason for the change is simply to give the administrators more control. Many of these advocates believe that charter schools are most effective when their leaders and teachers are freed from bureaucracy at all levels.
"It's important to note that a driving force behind this option in Florida has been district-level administrators wanting to get out from under state mandates," said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network in St. Paul, Minn. "We've heard much less about any interest or involvement by school leaders, teachers, parents, and school communities in making the kind of fundamental changes that will produce improved student achievement."
While it's a good sign that some school administrators are acknowledging the impediments of state regulations, Mr. Schroeder said, "it's not yet clear that the charter-district concept, as being implemented in Florida, will lead to real change in how individual schools are governed, staffed, financed, and operated."
No C's by 2003
Compared to charter schools, which now number close to 2,000 and operate in 33 states and the District of Columbia, charter districts are a rare breed.
Other than Florida's Volusia County, only four such districts operate in California and one in Georgia, and those are small, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which advocates alternatives to the traditional public education system.
And only four states—Florida, California, New Mexico, and Wisconsin—expressly allow charter districts in their charter laws, though such districts probably could be approved in some of the remaining states that allow individual charter schools, as is the case in Georgia, said David DeSchryver, a policy analyst with the CER.
"My impression of the whole trend [of charter districts] is that a lot of people don't understand what it means or how to use it," Mr. DeSchryver said. "It's certainly a pragmatic approach to getting things done, but I hesitate to say this is really true school reform in terms of academics and classroom innovation."
But Volusia's Mr. Huth says the whole purpose of his district's conversion to a charter "is to improve instruction," and the district pledged measurable academic improvement in exchange for greater autonomy.
In a charter contract with the state board of education, Volusia County administrators outlined 29 performance goals for their district's 66 schools.
At the top of the list is a pledge that no Volusia school will receive an F rating this year from the state based on its students' standardized-test scores. And, the district promises, no school will receive lower than a C in 2002 or less than a B the following year.
Similar to many of the agreements that authorize individual charter schools, the Volusia charter also includes benchmarks for increasing students' scores on state tests, raising the district's graduation rate, and getting parents and the community more involved in school activities. The contract must be renewed in three years, is subject to yearly review, and requires the district to file an annual progress report each July.
A school reform bill signed into law last year by Gov. Bush, a Republican, included a pilot program for six charter districts. Behind Volusia are two other Florida districts seeking the charter designation: the Hillsborough County and Sarasota County schools.
"We in the education community frequently talk about the burdensome nature of state regulations," said Mark A. Hart, the director of public affairs for the 158,000- student Hillsborough district. "This will give us more latitude to chart our own course."
Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 3